In the home, as in the wild, cats are meat eaters. When left to fend for themselves, felines hunt for protein-rich rodents and birds. Their nutritional needs don’t change just because they’re using a litter box and sleeping on floor pillows.

“Balanced nutrition for dogs and people can include a [larger] mixture of grains and fruits,” explains Dr. Sally Perea, DVM and certified veterinary nutritionist in Davis, Calif. “Cats are true carnivores and balanced nutrition for them means twice the amount of protein as dogs. That is first and foremost.”

But your cat’s nutritional needs are more complicated than just turkey, steak and chicken. As such, Dr. Perea recommends feeding your furry friend a commercially prepared cat food that meets the standards established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) for kittens or adult cats. Look for AAFCO statements on the food’s packaging to guarantee the appropriate nutritional content. Below, she explains six important nutritional needs that your cat requires.

Your Cat Needs: Animal Protein
Cats need 25 percent of their minimum caloric intake to come from protein. The source of this protein should be meat-based. Plant-based proteins do not offer the same amino acids — that is, the building blocks of protein — as protein that comes from meat.
What Happens Without It
While dogs and humans can conserve the amount of protein the body breaks down when it’s scarce in the diet, cats cannot. They break down their own muscle quicker than omnivores do without protein, which can lead to a variety of health problems. Kittens may not develop properly and adult cats might not be able to maintain their immune function without this relatively high concentration of protein in their diets.

Your Cat Needs: Fat
Cats require an essential fatty acid called arachidonic acid, which is found only in animal fat. Arachidonic acid provides cats with energy. It also makes their food more palatable. While dogs can manufacture arachidonic acid from other acids, cats cannot.
What Happens Without It
Arachidonic acid helps produce a protective inflammatory response in your cat. It also regulates skin growth, aids blood in clotting, and allows the reproductive and gastrointestinal systems to function optimally. Without this acid, your cat may develop problems with any of the aforementioned.

Your Cat Needs: Fiber
Fiber is necessary for the health of the large intestine. Bacteria in the large intestine feed on soluble fibers, working as pro-biotics. These are microbes that help to protect their host. In this case, they help to protect your cat’s gastrointestinal tract from disease.
What Happens Without It
Just like in humans, a lack of fiber can lead to feline constipation — a condition that some cats are prone to more than others. Another consideration is the type of fiber. Some fibers break down better than others in your cat’s intestine. When reading pet food labels, look for ingredients like beet fiber that provide proven nutritional benefits, as well as the necessary amount of bulk fiber.

Your Cat Needs: Taurine
Taurine is an amino acid that cats must have for cardiovascular health. While dogs and humans can make taurine from other amino acid precursors, cats do not possess the necessary enzymes to do this.
What Happens Without It
In the 1970s, veterinary nutritionists did not yet understand the importance of taurine for cats. Commercial cat foods did not include it, and house cats began developing heart conditions in large numbers. Once this need was understood, cat food manufacturers began supplementing their products with taurine and the problem resolved.

Your Cat Needs: Vitamin A
Humans can synthesize Vitamin A from beta carotene, an orange-colored pigment found in fruits and vegetables, such as carrots. Cats cannot perform such a biological feat. They require a preformed Vitamin A, present only in foods of animal origin. This nutrient is often included in cat food as retinyl palmitate.
What Happens Without It
Deficiencies of Vitamin A are rare in cats. When they occur, however, they can lead to night blindness, skin and coat problems, and retarded growth in kittens.

Your Cat Needs: Niacin
Niacin is a B vitamin that many other animals can synthesize from the amino acid tryptophan, present in turkey and other foods. Cats cannot make enough of it, and so they must have a higher amount of niacin in their diets than other animals do.
What Happens Without It
If your cat doesn’t get enough niacin, it could lose its appetite, which may lead to weight loss. It could also develop inflamed gums and severe diarrhea.

Formulating the right nutritional balance for your cat necessitates care, research and tremendous forethought. It’s a miracle of modern manufacturing that pet food companies have taken these necessary steps, so you only have to pop open a can and/or pour from a bag.

Your cat’s life stage and health, however, can impact its nutritional needs. A diabetic cat, a pregnant cat and an aging cat, for example, may need special types of food or require certain adjustments to their basic diet. Check with your veterinarian to determine any particular requirements your pet may have. But basically, says Dr. Perea, “If you think of the nutrient makeup of a mouse, you have a pretty good idea of what your cat needs.”